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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia(1974)


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Sam Peckinpah never made a musical but Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) comes close to fitting the bill. Many characters sing at one point or another (with or without musical accompaniment) as they race towards what they think will be an easy $1,000,000. The story's protagonist, Bennie (Warren Oates), is a pianist whose early career in the finer nightclubs of Tijuana has degraded into job-hopping farther south of the border, banging the keys in disreputable tourist traps and leading the gringos in drunken choruses of "Guantanamera." Given its terpsichorean tendencies and Bennie's descent into the underworld (both figuratively and literally), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia can be viewed as a remake of Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus (1959). Bennie is even punished, as was Orpheus, for the act of looking in defiance of a specific warning. Promised a chunk of change (albeit less than the million bucks that soldiers of fortune Gig Young and Robert Webber are after) to track down the malhombre who impregnated the unwed daughter of crime boss Emilio Fernandez, Bennie learns that the eponymous bounder has already died in a random road accident. Traveling to the provinces with his prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega), who had shared Alfredo Garcia's bed in the days leading up to his death, Bennie remorselessly digs up the man's grave. Ignoring Elita's entreaties to turn back to a life of simple happiness together, Bennie stands poised to separate Garcia's head from his shoulders when a blow from behind renders him unconscious. When he awakens, his Eurydice is dead, the valuable head of Alfredo Garcia is missing and Bennie is in Hell... where he should be.

After having lost final cut on Major Dundee (1965), a dispirited Peckinpah worked in television and labored on feature films for which he received no credit. The success of his revisionist western The Wild Bunch (1969) reenergized the maverick filmmaker while its success made him bankable in Hollywood. Peckinpah moved on to the equally controversial Straw Dogs (1971), the ultraviolent The Getaway (1972) and another blood-soaked oater, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Peckinpah also made two comedies during this time - The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972) - which deal in issues of brutality and masochism in a lighter vein.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia features several of Peckinpah's rep players and trademark authorial touches but feels improvised and raw, at once typical and uncharacteristic. Although the project had been initiated during the upswing in Peckinpah's career, it was shot in the fallout of the failure of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which MGM had recut without his participation. Angered at his treatment by the studio (and disgusted at the reelection of Republican President Richard Nixon), Peckinpah retreated to Mexico to make a film that would rub the industry's nose in excessive violence and cruelty.

Peckinpah's casting of character actor Warren Oates in a lead role was seen as an additional act of defiance but Oates was actually Peckinpah's third choice to play Bennie, after both James Coburn and Peter Falk passed on the opportunity. According to screenwriter Gordon T. Dawson (who inherited Frank Kowalski's original treatment and an aborted script by Walter Kelly), Peckinpah was listless and diffident during filming, plagued by woman troubles at home and over-medicated by quack doctors. According to Dawson, principal photography on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was marked with an overwhelming sense of melancholy and defeat, perhaps engendered by Peckinpah's use of cocaine (introduced to him by Oates). The screenwriter (a veteran of several Peckinpah films) was so unnerved by the shift in Peckinpah's mental state and mercurial behavior that he resolved never to work with him again. Although Peckinpah's vision for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia remained intact and unsullied by studio interference, critical response was savage ("...witless"... "...dreary"... "...a catastrophe...") and the film proved to be another box office failure.

Despite its unblinking brutality and double digit roster of victims, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is about nothing so much as the redemptive power of love and the price to be paid for sacrificing love in the pursuit of gain. Bennie and Elita are one of cinema's great outlaw couples, due in large part to the onscreen chemistry of Warren Oates and Isela Vega. Although this was only her second English language film, Vega was playful and bold in her scenes with Oates, continuing Elita's prodding of Bennie to propose marriage even after Peckinpah had called "cut"... and prompting from the unprepared Oates a palpably emotional in-character response. According to Kris Kristofferson, who plays a small role as the motorcycle rudo who interrupts this romantic scene, Peckinpah not only printed the improv but rewrote the scene to follow because of it. (Peckinpah also changed the ending of the shooting script, which had Bennie surviving the climactic head handoff.)

Another of the film's great twosomes is the Mutt & Jeff act of Gig Young and Robert Webber. Comedian Mort Sahl had been cast originally in Young's role but quit the production when delays threatened his own performance calendar; Young and Webber were flown in at the behest of independent producer Marty Baum, who had once represented both actors as a talent agent. It was Webber's instinct to play against the expected machismo and he and Young (with Peckinpah's encouragement) turned Quill and Sappensly into an unexpectedly devoted couple not too far removed from the queer assassins Wint and Kidd who bedeviled James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Peckinpah may have allowed this character shading as proof of Quill's and Sappensly's decadence but the actors play it with subtlety and tenderness, giving Oates' and Vega's doomed lovers a literal run for their money.

Producer: Martin Baum
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Frank Kowalski (story), Sam Peckinpah (story & screenplay), Gordon T. Dawson (screenplay)
Cinematography: Alex Phillips, Jr.
Art Direction: Agustn Ituarte
Music: Jerry Fielding
Film Editing: Dennis Dolan, Sergio Ortega, Robbe Roberts
Cast: Warren Oates (Bennie), Isela Vega (Elita), Robert Webber (Sappensly), Gig Young (Quill), Helmut Dantine (Max), Emilio Fernndez (El Jefe), Kris Kristofferson (Biker), Donnie Fritts (John), Chano Urueta (Manchot).
C-112m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

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